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Human Rights Watch Exposes Human Rights Abuses Against Guatemalan Children

Guatemalan children suffer serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch declared in a detailed publication released today. Guatemala's Forgotten Children: Police Violence and Abuses in Detention, a 144-page report, analyzes human rights abuses that take place both on the street and in detention centers. Issued as the Guatemalan government prepares to implement a new Minors' Code, the report strongly criticizes the country's juvenile justice system, calling it not just ineffective but punitive as well.

"Guatemalan street children have nowhere to turn. Those who attack them enjoy impunity, and the legal system fails them completely," charged José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Americas.

Guatemala is a signatory to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the country's justice system, rather than protect minors from abuse, often exacerbates violations, the study finds. "Even innocent juveniles are treated harshly by the justice system," declared Lois Whitman, director of the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Project. "Children can be rounded up arbitrarily and forced to spend many months being warehoused in this brutal system."

Among the report's findings:

  • Children who are arrested may spend many months in pre-adjudication detention, often because they simply have no family to claim them. When they do receive a hearing, their rights to due process, including access to representation, are frequently ignored.
  • Children in protective custody are detained together with juvenile offenders. As a result, children who may have fled abusive homes are thrown into the same dreary facilities as are drug addicts, pickpockets, prostitutes, and violent offenders. Young children are frequently mixed with teenagers.
  • Detention facilities do not offer any meaningful rehabilitation or education, nor do they provide psychological treatment or systematic vocational training. Children are crowded together in unsanitary conditions, vulnerable to mistreatment from staff and from other detainees. All of these conditions violate international law.
  • Control over juvenile facilities has been virtually ceded to REMAR (Rehabilitación de los Marginados), a Spanish evangelical organization. Boys who had been held in REMAR detention facilities reported widespread use of beatings and other abuse. Despite numerous such reports, no Guatemalan authority is supervising the actions of REMAR in any of its facilities.
  • In a welcome change from the usual impunity enjoyed by security force agents, three cases in which children were murdered in 1993 and 1995 resulted in recent murder convictions against private security guards. Most crimes against street children, however, remain unpunished, particularly when police were responsible for the abuses.

In 1996, the Guatemalan legislature passed the Minors' Code, which is scheduled to take effect in September 1997 and contains a host of improvements for the treatment of Guatemalan children. If fully implemented, the abuses documented by Human Rights Watch would largely cease, the report concludes. Currently, however, Guatemalan officials only take seriously cases of human rights violations against children if outside pressure has been brought to bear.

Guatemala's Forgotten Children contains detailed recommendations for the Guatemalan government, the United Nations, the United States, and the European Union. Among them:

General Recommendations to the Guatemalan Government:

  • The government should take every step necessary to ensure that the new Minors' Code is fully implemented without delay.
  • Current abusive practices should be halted immediately to conform to the requirements of international and Guatemalan law. Particular attention should be paid to the practices of the National Police, private security guards (for which the Interior Ministry holds regulatory responsibility), the Minors' Courts, all state-run juvenile detention facilities, and all privately operated custodial facilities that accept children sent by court order.
  • In order to ascertain compliance with international and Guatemalan law, independent nongovernmental organizations, including international human rights monitors, should be allowed periodically to investigate the juvenile justice system in its entirety or in part, including juvenile detention facilities.
    These monitors should be permitted to conduct confidential interviews with detained children of their choosing, with the consent of the children involved.
  • The government should itself periodically initiate and/or undertake evaluations of the Guatemalan juvenile justice system, including juvenile detention facilities.
  • The Public Ministry and the National Police should thoroughly and impartially investigate all allegations of crimes committed against street children. Complaints regarding police mistreatment of children should be investigated promptly and thoroughly. Where appropriate, disciplinary measures and criminal proceedings should be ordered. The current practice of investigating only those cases on which outside pressure is brought to bear must end immediately.
  • All police officers should receive rigorous and periodic training in human rights, children's rights, and relations with street children. What constitutes abusive police behavior should be defined explicitly for all officers. Examples of abusive and prohibited behavior--including stealing, soliciting bribes, soliciting sex, sexual assault, physical beatings, and illegal detention--should be clearly explained.
  • Female police officers should be recruited. When possible, police teams working the downtown Guatemala City area should be composed of at least one female, with the goal of reducing sexual violence by police officers against street girls.
  • Immediate and concrete steps should be taken to increase the effectiveness of the Office of Professional Responsibility of the National Police, and in particular the responsiveness of that office to complaints alleging police misconduct against children. Procedures should be implemented that will allow complainants and witnesses to protect their identities should they reasonably fear reprisals.

Recommendations to the Guatemalan Government Regarding the Administration of Juvenile Justice:

  • All children facing the possible deprivation of their liberty should be provided a lawyer.
  • The practice of lengthy pre-adjudication detentions should be ended immediately. Detention pending trial should be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible period of time, in accordance with international law. Under no circumstances should a child be held pending adjudication for more than the thirty working days permitted under Guatemalan law, and detention of this length should be mandated only in exceptional cases.
  • No children should be held in detention solely because they lack a responsible parent or guardian who is willing and/or able to take them home. Instead, foster care or other non-punitive custody arrangements should be provided.
  • Until privately run REMAR centers are thoroughly investigated, monitored, overseen, and approved by the responsible Guatemalan authorities, no child should be sent by a judge to such a center. Even after such centers are approved and oversight is established, no child should be sent by a judge to a REMAR facility unless the child, in consultation with his or her attorney, so agrees. In the meantime, private or state-run alternatives to REMAR centers should be established as soon as possible, and should also be subject to a rigorous approval process and ongoing monitoring.

Recommendations to the Guatemalan Government Regarding Juvenile Detention Centers:

  • A full investigation into privately operated REMAR centers should be undertaken immediately, and the findings of that investigation publicized.
  • Physical punishment or abuse of children by staff should be strictly prohibited at all facilities, whether private or state-run. Staff found to have abused children should be dismissed or otherwise disciplined, as appropriate. Where appropriate, criminal charges should be brought against offending staff members. Staff should be fully informed of the rules and consequences concerning physical abuse of children.
  • A complaint system should be initiated that allows detained children to make confidential complaints to facility directors, to the Children's Rights Defender of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, and/or to other appropriate national or international agencies. The system should ensure that all complaints are investigated and responded to promptly.
  • The Children's Rights Defender should make unannounced inspections of all juvenile centers, and should intervene whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that abuses have been committed.
  • Meaningful control and supervision over REMAR staff in state facilities should be implemented immediately. Any direct or indirect financial support to REMAR by the Guatemalan government should immediately cease. Should allegations of abuses by REMAR staff persist, the government should expel the organization from state facilities.
  • In keeping with international children's rights norms, corporal punishment should never be used.
  • Under no circumstances should isolation be used as a punitive measure.
  • Physical and sexual abuse of detainees by other people in detention should be strictly guarded against by all appropriate means, including adequate staffing, rigorous monitoring, and the appropriate placement of children in facilities and dormitories.
  • Meaningful educational and vocational training should be instituted at all facilities. Libraries and recreational activities should be made available to all children at all facilities.
  • Each child should receive adequate medical care, including mental health care. Medical emergencies should be dealt with promptly, regardless of the child's economic status.
  • Each detention facility should implement drug-abuse prevention and rehabilitation programs; these programs should be administered by qualified personnel.
  • The government should collect and disseminate statistical data regarding children in detention. Such information should include: the reason for detention; the length of time in detention; the disposition of the case (i.e., measures imposed by judge); the frequency of review of these measures; family history; medical condition, including any substance addiction or abuse; previous detentions; and any complaints or concerns noted by the child.

Recommendations to the European Union:

  • The European Union should develop guidelines for ensuring that its funds are not and will not be utilized by a juvenile justice system that violates the human rights of detained children and youth. An important first step would be to commission a prompt and independent investigation of conditions in the juvenile justice system, with public findings and recommendations; the European Union should use its leverage to ensure that these recommendations are implemented.
  • In particular, the European Union should vigorously protest the use of punitive isolation and physical punishment in children's centers, and insist on adequate state supervision and control over the centers.
  • The European Union and all member states providing direct and indirect aid to Guatemalan law enforcement agencies should insist on significant improvement in police conduct toward street children. In particular, training programs provided by the Spanish Civil Guard to the National Police should incorporate instructions on coping with street children without abusing their rights. Failure to improve in this area would warrant a reconsideration of aid to the police.

Recommendations to the United States:

  • The United States government should review the effectiveness of the Office of Professional Responsibility of the police to determine why it has failed to adequately address police violence against street children.
  • U.S. assistance to law enforcement agencies should include a component on the human rights of street children. Continued serious abuses by the police should prompt a reconsideration of aid.

Recommendations to the United Nations:

  • The U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child should investigate police violence against Guatemalan street children. They should also evaluate the government's response to this violence, including efforts at prevention and sanctions against offending officers. The findings of these studies should be the basis for detailed and public recommendations to the government of Guatemala.
  • The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, and the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child should investigate conditions of detention for children in Guatemala, including, but not limited to, the use of corporal punishment and isolation. They should evaluate the government's response to illegal conditions and practices in juvenile detention facilities. Based on their findings, they should make detailed and public recommendations to the Guatemalan government.
  • The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child should investigate the extent to which due process protections are observed by the Guatemalan government in depriving children of their liberty. They should make detailed and public recommendations to the Guatemalan government, aimed at full and rapid observance of due process rights in the detention and confinement of children.
  • The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child should devote a theme day to the topic of police violence against street children.

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